“Subscribe” Is The First, Best Click


When a new subscriber adds themselves to your company’s email list, what events and records are triggered? That signup process seems like such a little, commonplace thing — a few lines of text, a few fields, another record or two somewhere — that it tends to be set up once and forgotten. That’s an unfortunate way to frame it, because in fact, each subscriber signup is a big moment where your company adds a tangible asset, and (increasingly) assumes some legal responsibility and risk. My hope is that by the time you finish this article, you’ve got a bit of eagerness and a bit of panic behind the “subscriber signup review” item on your to-do list.

Let’s ground that argument in something pragmatic. Subscriber signups are likely to come from websites, ecommerce transactions, perhaps app signups or partners. The code and forms that handle the front end of signup are likely to come from one of a few different sources. ESPs frequently provide a chunk of signup-form code. 3rd party forms companies offer more options for cosmetics and customization. In-house development can also handle the job; website forms are not inherently complicated.

The core of the job done by any of these front-end tools is to take the digital “stuff” entered by the customer — email address at a minimum, perhaps additional personal details such as name — and transfer that information to be stored.

That’s really all that can be done, right? Wrong!

If your signup form is only capturing what a customer entered, it’s decreasing the value of that new-subscriber asset, and potentially increasing your company’s risk.

There’s a surprising amount of “digital context” available and attached to each subscriber at the moment of signup. Among the attributes that can be captured:

  • Place data: country, region/state, metro code, city and even geolocation.
  • Time data: what time of day did the customer sign up?  From what time zone did they sign up? 
  • Device data: the Headers transmitted in an HTTP request include details on browser, OS, device and more, which can be connected/expanded relatively easily. Are they an Apple user?  Windows? Android? Old device, or shiny new up-to-date OS?  All of that is available.

All of that data is more-or-less ‘built in’ to the underlying protocols. If you really want to drive personalization and customer experience, there are commercial solutions that add an incredible amount of data to that starting record. One example:  SocialSignal (Full disclosure – the author is the principal architect of SocialSignal.ai) provides “segment on signup,” placing consumers in one of 80 segments with over 1,000 attributes.

“Subscribe” Is Essentially A Contract

There’s also a legal ‘context’ at the moment of signup that should be properly structured and properly documented. I’ll cover that briefly, and then explain why it’s becoming more important,  urgent, and risky.

You may assume that simply having a Terms Of Service (TOS) page (or something similar) takes care of defining the legal terms between you and that subscriber. I’m not a lawyer, and this is certainly not legal advice, but I’ve learned that having a TOS page “somewhere” may not be enough. A TOS link in a navigation footer isn’t a TOS page that a subscriber has to read. The connection has to be spelled out somehow, by referencing the TOS, requiring navigation to/through the TOS, or something similar. Take a look at your subscriber signup; does it require the subscriber to agree or consent? Could an attorney pushing a class-action suit argue that thousands of subscribers were not properly informed of those terms, and did not in fact consent?

In addition, website and app content — including things like Terms Of Service — are likely to change over time. In capturing a sign-up, it makes sense to include a record of the legal terms/version and website page flow that apply to that signup.

That’s not necessarily a complex challenge — for example, including a hidden field in the signup form with the version number of the TOS would put you miles ahead.


Overkill? More likely it’s money saved in the future. Reconstructing signup context is atrociously tricky and expensive. Does your company archive every version/change of website content?  I’ve seen companies troll through the Wayback Machine to find how their own website content used to look, with no success. (Google Docs provides step-by-step version tracking for free, while web platforms that cost zillions have Memento syndrome and can’t show you yesterday. Hmmm…)

Why Add This To The Email Workload Now?

Tracking this level of detail wasn’t necessary in the past, at least in the US market. It is now. State-by-state laws on digital privacy and control are starting to pile up, and some of them are creating very tangible risk.

Privacy expert Reed Freeman of ArentFox Schiff spoke on state privacy laws at the recent Email Innovations Summit (Full disclosure: Only Influencers is a co-producer of this event). I’ve never seen a conference audience so glued to a presentation, or so somber. There’s potential for class-action suits on a number of aspects of digital privacy, and that means enormous risk.

Addressing that risk, in my opinion, is likely to be a primary driver behind the next wave of marcom systems. As capable as modern ESPs are, they’re not necessarily designed for the job of managing risk. Throwing email and firstname directly into the ESP, and calling it a day, is not going to suffice. We need to start thinking of the customer subscribe record as some sort of mini-legal-contract, because it actually is.

Email platform sage Chris Marriott has been predicting the rise and eventual merge of CDPs (Customer Data Platforms) with ESPs. The new landscape of digital privacy — a patchwork of state laws with very sharp objects under some of the patches — will, I think, accelerate the market for CDPs (and the merge with ESPs) dramatically, because companies will start recognizing that a solid system-of-record approach to customer opt-in is the only way to steer around the sharp stuff in that legal patchwork.

Subscriber sign-up is not solely an email job. It’s likely to cut across multiple parts of an organization, including IT, legal and marketing. Leaving it as nobody’s particular responsibility is a bad Idea, given the changing legal landscape. The opportunity to improve customer experience while reducing risk makes that humble, simple subscriber signup worth your time and attention.

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